Despite being a name unknown to many, Johnny Marks is the man behind plenty of popular holiday hits we still bop along to today. From Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to Burl Ives’s “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold,” Marks made a name for himself as a songwriter within the music industry, and his seasonal tracks have since embedded themselves in our Christmas culture.
Though Marks’ catalog of songs is fairly extensive, it’s his flair for the festive which has proven noteworthy over the years. In particular, one of the most interesting quirks of Marks’ career is his involvement in popularizing the holiday classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Johnny Marks & Rudolph
The song we all know and love was originally just a poem, and it was Johnny Marks’ own brother-in-law, Robert L. May, who created the now-famous reindeer back in 1939. As the poem was originally written for retailer Montgomery Ward, the rights weren’t initially May’s to own. Luckily, the head of the company, Sewell Avery, chose to give May the rights in the mid-1940s.
Marks is then said to have seen the potential in the character and the idea his brother-in-law had created, so he decided to put it to music. In 1949, Gene Autry’s recording of the song made it to No. 1 on the U.S. charts, and the concept was later adapted into its own television special in 1964 by Rankin/Bass.
Marks remained involved and soundtracked the TV special, creating yet more festive songs to add to his catalog in the process. Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” is also partially credited to Marks due to the famous reindeer’s inclusion, associating the writer with yet another classic seasonal track. Who knew one man could have such influence over the holidays?
As “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to make appearances on holiday playlists around the country this year, be sure to give Johnny Marks and Robert L. May a shoutout — you’ll be the talk of the tinsel-draped water cooler. To give the song (and plenty of other Christmas hits, whether penned by Marks or not) a listen, tune in to Holiday Traditions (Ch. 71).
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